Review: Gods of Egypt – Watching $140 million burn for two hours

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BEFORE we say anything about Gods of Egypt and how bad it is, let’s address the controversy surrounding the film’s casting decisions. Much like the similarly Egyptian (cough) Exodus: Gods and Kings, the film was roundly condemned for casting Caucasian actors in the central roles. This fact did not escape the ire of legion internet commentators, and ultimately resulted in director Alex Proyas issuing a grovelling apology… which he later, subtly, recanted when accusing critics, many of whom penned negative reviews, of being “deranged… diseased vultures, picking at a dying carcass”. The whole rant is hilarious, the sycophantic comment thread even moreso, and I urge you to read through it all.

It’s been a long way down for Proyas since the 90s. The Crow, his sophomore feature, was an absorbing, tenderly Gothic film with compelling performances and gloomy aesthetics that launched a thousand teenage phases. His follow-up, Dark City, developed a huge cult following, thanks in part to its reality-bending world and dystopian sci-fi tinge. Critically, they did well. I, Robot and Knowing, with their big budgets and bigger studio backing, did not. Proyas seems like the kind of director that can only truly thrive beyond a rigid studio system, when he’s able to imprint his own indelible stamp on his work.

Gods of Egypt is not representative of that kind of environment. It’s a $140 million blockbuster, a marquee movie designed to make money on the backs of computer-generated spectacle and larger-than-life performances. It’s the 2010 Clash of the Titans with an “Egyptian” wallpaper; pallid, bloated nonsense that, despite drawing on myths and legends from the cradle of civilization itself, has precious little creativity to speak of.

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The plot is a fairly simple one, and a reinterpretation of one of the more famous myths. In an Egypt where the world is flat and the gods are really, really tall, bleed gold and drip ham, Osiris (Bryan Brown) is overthrown by his brother Set (Gerard Butler), god of destruction, deserts and yelling. Set banishes the rightful heir, Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), ripping out his eyes in the process. It’s then up to Bek (Brenton Thwaites) to help restore Horus to his throne and save his lost love (Courtney Eaton) in the process.

So the story is no great shakes, but that’s fine in a sweeping, lavish fantasy epic like this. Unfortunately, every other aspect of the film is just as simplistic and, in most cases, woefully ill-advised. The casting is the immediate problem, when you’re unable to concentrate on what’s being said because everyone is so white. There’s the bizarre, slightly-clipped, not-quite RP accent that everyone (except Butler) employs, making Dick van Dyke seem an East End native by comparison.

Then there’s the infuriating reliance on wry quips to offset any otherwise perilous situation; not that it would be possible to care, given how flat and uninteresting the characters are, but half the time they don’t even make sense. Bek is the worst offender for this, with every single one of his statements being some kind of pithy one-liner. He mocks Mnevis (Alexander England), a bull-headed god, by insinuating he has “goats up [your] behind.” Horus is little better, escaping a terribly-rendered CG serpent with the words, “Your company was preferable.” (To the woman he loves. Ha ha!)

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Speaking of the CGI – well, it’s rubbish. It is absolutely bloody awful, and the green screens are somehow worse than the driving sequences in Twilight: Breaking Dawn. There’s no substance to the sand-swept landscapes, no solidity to the hilarious animal-cum-Autobot forms that Horus and Set become; we can see the seams, and they’re often falling apart beneath the weight of our disbelief. It’s a poor substitute to the kind of insane spectacle of Cleopatra, or the swords-and-sandals majesty of Ben-Hur, and I kept expecting a controller to sprout from my chair for the quick-time button prompts.

But that would be insulting to video games, and, in all fairness, there are some striking visuals here. The golden blood of the gods is a neat touch, the sheer scale of Egypt is at least amusing, and the enormous Dr. Manhattan spaceship piloted by Ra (Geoffrey Rush), fighting off a giant space worm of immeasurable darkness and innumerable teeth, is… well, it’s certainly something. On a different note, the costume design is fabulous, dripping with gold trim and and lovely silks, and I hope that’s where most of the budget went. On the other hand, Coster-Waldau’s blindfold/eyepatch looks daft as anything.

So is the acting. Thwaites delivers all his lines with the exact same intonation, making his already flaccid jibes seem positively childlike. Coster-Waldau is too busy looking like a fool to worry about his delivery, and Élodie Yung’s performance as Hathor, goddess of love (as the script constantly reminds us), is so bereft of sensuality she may as well be seducing her wardrobe. Chadwick Boseman as Thoth, god of wisdom, is a cut-price Spock with a baffling voice, and Courtney Eaton doesn’t really get the chance to do anything beyond looking very pretty.

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Meanwhile, Geoffrey Rush is pulling gold out of a turd with the sheer might of his screen presence, and Rufus Sewell’s eyebrows are in a state of permanent raise, his campy gestures a masterclass in effete, slimy cowardice. And then there’s Gerard Butler, in all his shouty glory; he doesn’t so much play Leonidas from 300 again as embrace him whole, and he’s the only actor in the film that’s able to wrangle some depth and character out of the strange, anachronistic lines he is given. His Set is angry all the time, as you would expect from Butler, but at least he has a reason, albeit a poorly-defined one, to be that way.

Directorially though, there’s nothing to talk about. This could have been helmed by anyone in the world and it wouldn’t have mattered; the script is so obviously broken that it would be pointless to try and stamp some authority into it. Not that Proyas tries; there’s nothing of The Crow or Dark City here, nothing to distinguish it from any other CGI-lead blockbuster of recent years. It’s so uninspired, even as it tries so hard to dazzle us with the price of its effects.

Mundanity is most damning of all its flaws. It’s so dull and plodding that I can’t imagine it living a second life on the cult circuit. Jupiter Ascending had the overwhelming ham of Eddie Redmayne to sustain it; not even Butler’s efforts can salvage this mess as a camp classic. It’s not the trainwreck that other “diseased vultures” might have lead you to believe, but, in many ways, I wish it was.

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